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Automotive Grade AVR Systems Are More Serious Than Siri

by Roger Lanctot | Jul 11, 2012

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." - George Santayana

I am happy to report watching with great amusement the Siri television advertisements featuring John Malkovich.  (See here on Youtube: http://huff.to/MYi4X7)  Very droll and certainly tantalizing from a speech recognition standpoint seeming to reflect, as claimed by Siri's parent Apple, that the Siri recognition engine is capable of learning the inclinations and preferences of each individual user.  As an automotive analyst, however, I've had to give those ads a harder second look.

Siri arrives in the marketplace at a time when government regulators in the U.S. - and in some geographies outside the U.S. - are focusing on driver distraction.  Siri appears to have been rapidly seized upon by multiple car makers as the ultimate solution to the distraction mitigation challenge.  The suitability of Siri to this task is posited by its alter ego brand name: EyesFree.  The promise of using Siri in the car is to achieve an EyesFree means of accessing features and functions on the iPhone.  Of course it is not quite hands-free because Apple is promoting the application with a steering wheel mounted trigger. 

(It is worth noting that engineers at Waze divined a way to use the proximity sensor as a trigger mechanism, but that is a separate story.)

Nevertheless, a tidal wave of what can only be called Siri hysteria ensued.  Apple, it seemed, had solved the automated voice recognition challenge singlehandedly.  It is at this point that I feel a word of caution is advised.  It wasn't so long ago, maybe six or seven years, that Bluetooth was embraced as the definitive answer to hands-free phone interfaces.  To be sure, Bluetooth has proven helpful, but it is far from a panacea, even after all these years of development and refinement.

The challenge for both Bluetooth and voice recognition is the fact that the implementers of these technologies continue to ask them to do more.  Bluetooth has not yet completely conquered HFI and the industry is already moving on to A2DP and SPP profile implementation.  AVR systems have not yet mastered one-shot destination entry and now car makers are introducing dictation and email and text message composition.  And Siri is more or less offering voice-based access to most iPhone functionality.

As you watch and chuckle over John Malkovich chatting with his iPhone remember that he is conducting his conversation in an utterly empty and quiet salon while relaxing in an arm chair.  This is nowhere near the operating environment of a noisy automobile cabin.

And to which organization should a car maker turn to solve its AVR challenges?  The maker of mobile devices held in the hand or to an organization built entirely around solving voice recognition challenges in a wide range of environments with a particular emphasis on automotive systems? 

Cloud-enhanced recognizers such as Apple's Siri may learn my inclinations and preferences and Google's Now AVR app may access Google's Knowledge Graph with 500 million entities and 3.5 billion relational facts, but neither of these organizations can offer car makers their undivided attention.  Robust voice-based solutions are to be found within the existing automotive eco-system and will reflect the priorities of the OEMs around quality of service.

Implications

Bluetooth is a powerful technology but it has caused many complaints while solving problems and enabling new forms of content and service delivery.  AVR technology is viewed as one of the key interface modes that will contribute to resolving distracted driving, but it is far from perfect or perfected. 

But the organizations that have taken AVR the furthest and are likely to continue to lead in the automotive market are already invested in the automotive market and present.  These organizations include Vlingo, Nuance (Dragon Go!), AT&T (Watson) and Microsoft (Tellme).  Car makers should take greater care before embracing a technology that may or may not satisfy customers, may or may not solve regulatory challenges, may or may not enable new features and functions - but will definitely generate customer confusion and aggravation.

The latest JD Power Iniitial Quality Study highlighted the fact that AVR systems are the leading cause of customer complaints.  This is significant given the fact that the study was conducted in the U.S. among a fairly homogeneous population of English speakers.  What happens to AVR technology outside the U.S. where dialiects are more numerous and more challenging.  Will it really be worth marring an existing HMI environment in the car with a steering wheel add on to accommodate a single phone maker.  Maybe, but as we take that risk let's do so with eyes wide open and with the intention of avoiding a repitition of past HMI blunders.

Because Siri was not conceived specifically for automotive use and because Apple does not provide for any distraction mitigation measures, the Siri proposition is an application free for all.  Siri enables all functions - maybe - instead of delivering a few very specific functions reliably and safely.  That, in the end, is the big difference between Siri and existing (or in development) automotive grade AVR systems.  Proceed with caution.

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